Meklit Kalebessa never imagined that she would be just the type of student Whitworth University was looking for.
In fact, the Lewis and Clark High School senior didn’t see a four-year college in her future at all, much less a private college of Whitworth’s stature.
But last week, Kalebessa was named one of 43 students who will receive full-tuition, full-need scholarships to five Washington colleges.
The students were chosen by the Act Six Leadership and Scholarship Initiative, after a rigorous selection process evaluating their leadership potential and the ethnic and social diversity each would bring to the largely white, affluent student bodies.
“Act Six is specifically targeting underrepresented leaders,” said Tim Herron, the effort’s director for the Northwest Leadership Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit organization based in Tacoma. Students of all races are invited to apply, but the program seeks out applicants who will add “new perspectives and voices to campus.”
The foundation started the program in 2002 as a way to recruit Whitworth students from Tacoma’s low-income neighborhoods. Herron, a high school teacher at the time, said he’d seen far too many students go to college only to drop out.
With the recent addition of the foundation’s Spokane office, eight Spokane-area students were chosen this year for fall admission. Four will attend Whitworth – the university’s seventh group of Act Six students – and four will attend Gonzaga University, which recently joined the program.
Rodney McAuley, Act Six Spokane director, said he envisions the number of Spokane students increasing as the economy recovers. The program looks for students who care about their communities and want to bring the lessons they learn in college back home.
Kalebessa was an ideal candidate.
A native of Ethiopia, her family immigrated to Spokane when she was in third grade. She studied English as a second language until her freshman year at LC. She volunteers at Sacred Heart Medical Center and wants to pursue a career in health care administration.
Kalebessa said she can’t wait to begin Whitworth in the fall.
“It is unbelievable,” she said. “I was thinking of a community college.”
Three women in her life helped make the opportunity possible, she said: a family friend who bought Kalebessa’s first books in English, a counselor who guided her toward college, and her mother, who worked night shifts at a nursing home to support three children.
The Act Six program not only carefully selects applicants; it prepares them for college and supports them while they are there.
As a result, 90 percent of the 67 students originally selected for the program have graduated or are still enrolled, rates much higher than the national averages.
Among the Spokane Act Six students to attend Gonzaga is Jasmine Linane-Booey, a Shadle Park senior who wants to become a high school counselor.
“I’ve always wanted to work with kids,” Linane-Booey said. “My first job was in a child care.”
She considers herself “blessed” to receive the scholarship.
Gonzaga will determine what the families of the Act Six scholars can contribute, according to Julie McCulloh, dean of admissions.
“If the family has zero contributions, we will cover everything,” McCulloh said. That could amount to more than $36,000 per student, including a minimum tuition of $29,200 a year.
Whitworth will pay tuition, which is $27,100 this year. Then the university will cover room and board, books and expenses based on each student’s need, which could amount to more than $11,400.
So far, Herron said, the program has succeeded in its goal of producing leaders, both on campus and back in the community. Two of the past three student body presidents at Whitworth have been Act Six scholars.
“They really have been involved in every aspect of campus life,” Herron said. “Three-quarters of them are back in their home communities doing significant work.”
One teaches as part of the Teach for America program, four serve in AmeriCorps, one manages the genetics research lab at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and another works for the Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture, Herron said.
The other Washington colleges participating in Act Six are Pacific Lutheran University, Northwest University and Trinity Lutheran College.
McCulloh said Gonzaga was looking for just such a collaboration.
“We were looking for a program that would help us become more diverse, in all senses,” she said. “It’s in keeping with the Jesuit social justice mission.”